The late Holocaust scholar and survivor Professor Israel Gutman, a founder of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of the first Israeli textbook for teaching the Holocaust, used to say that the Holocaust refuses to be relegated the past; rather, it is a topic that is very much part of our present.
Over the past 75 years, Holocaust education has grown exponentially all around the world. Nevertheless, despite the unprecedented amount of material about the Holocaust available in a variety of languages and on different platforms, there remains a disturbing trend of growing ignorance and apathy about the topic. A great many people today lack the basic knowledge of facts about the Holocaust and the systematic attempt of the German Nazis and their collaborators to destroy the Jewish nation and its culture.
At Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, the past three decades have been dedicated in large part to promoting Holocaust education and research in Israel and abroad. Significant efforts have been made in forging relationships and agreements with international governments, schools and organizations, and developing tailor made and age-appropriate syllabi for specific populations worldwide.
And yet, the question remains: Have all these efforts been enough?
Jewish tradition holds that between the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, one should engage in introspection, including assessing shortcomings and making a commitment to improve.
Recent studies released by the Claims Conference provide an opportunity to examine collective actions in the areas of Holocaust research, education and commemoration—not only by Holocaust organizations such as Yad Vashem, but also by the larger community of those who are deeply concerned about widespread antisemitism, as well as Holocaust denial and distortion.
The results of these surveys, indicating a serious deficiency in knowledge about the Holocaust in the United States, beckon us to respond. We must address the root of the problem that has contributed to the findings that nearly two-thirds of Americans do not even know that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. We need to re-examine our educational approach in light of the fact that a significant percentage of “Gen Z” millennials across the United States of America have never heard of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka; and one out of 10 believe the grossly absurd notion that the Jews themselves were responsible for the Holocaust.
A united front and a joint approach are essential to ensuring that this watershed event will not be forgotten, and its relevance made clear to all. This means that we need widespread support for educational systems on the state and local level in order to effectively teach these lessons.
We strongly believe that it takes more than traditional educational frameworks to impart knowledge about the Holocaust to Gen Z’ers—substance and implications. More informal educational programs are needed. Opinion-makers, community leaders and celebrities must be fully prepared and have access to authentic and factual material about this sensitive subject matter in order to prevent trivialization and other forms of misuse of the Holocaust.
As with new beginnings in general, there is a glimmer of hope. In this case it comes in the form of a survey recently published by “Echoes and Reflections,” a multimedia teaching partnership program between the USC Shoah Foundation, the ADL and Yad Vashem. “Echoes and Reflections” provides professional training and resources for teachers of the Holocaust in all 50 States. This survey highlights how American college students exposed to basic information about the Holocaust, as well as eyewitness testimonies of Holocaust survivors, are less likely to harbor racist and xenophobic attitudes, and be more aware of social injustices. In other words, when people learn the factual history of the Holocaust, they also internalize the dangers of what can happen when hatred, racism and anti-Semitism are left unchecked.
We need to unite in our struggle against ignorance in general and lack of knowledge about the Holocaust in particular. Let us ponder: Are we investing enough in the humanities? What are our intellectual priorities? Are we lobbying our lawmakers to allot more hours to teach geography, history and philosophy? Are we demonstrating in the streets, demanding our governments to better train and pay our children’s teachers?
Research is the bedrock of Holocaust teaching, and it also needs to be given greater support. The ongoing collection of primary-source documents denotes how much we still do not know about the Holocaust, and, as Gutman said, how much it remains part of our present.
Let the recent surveys serve as a much needed wake-up call during this hour of introspection. Our task is far from over. The memory of Holocaust victims and the testimonies of survivors burn in our hearts. Their legacy guides our mission. We must continue to collect documentation, study this history, and pass on its relevance and meanings to younger generations. We must unite in our determination to remain driven and do better. Our resolve to educate has never been more urgent.
Dr. Robert Rozett is a senior historian in the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, and Richelle Budd Caplan is the director of International Relations and Projects in Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.